As historic Black neighborhoods erode, Nashville shouldn't just shrug | Opinion

As historic Black neighborhoods erode, Nashville shouldn't just shrug | Opinion

Updated: 2 months, 1 day, 23 hours, 9 minutes, 9 seconds ago

As historic Black neighborhoods erode, Nashville shouldn't just shrug | Opinion

Talking about the inevitable destruction of Nashville’s historic Black neighborhoods is like talking about having cancer. We know there is a problem, but no one wants to discuss it.play

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Jefferson Street Sound dedicated to musical history of Jefferson Street

Jefferson Street Sound founder Lorenzo Washington talks about the musical history of Nashville’s Jefferson Street

Nashville Tennessean

Kelly Motley lives in Nashville and is the author of "The Fight for My Life: Boxing Through Chemo."

Each morning on my way to a boxing gym, I became more aware of a vanishing world, a shrinking neighborhood.

I was aghast at the melting of homes, crumbling daycare centers and empty spaces where churches once stood. It looked like an ordered evacuation, a neighborhood abandoned at gunpoint.

The results were positively chilling. I wondered how to slow down or possibly halt the conveyor belt that was causing drastic changes in time spans as short as a day or a week.

“They talk about global warming, and the Merry Street community has a climate emergency,” says Michael Ross, a former Nashville principal and pastor of 100-year-old Merry Street Church of God Seventh Day.

Everywhere in Nashville is changing. But never before have so many historic Black neighborhoods virtually been swept away.

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Why Merry Street became like a shrine to me

Before Merry Street came into my life, my mindset around changes in Nashville was like most: I shrugged my shoulders.

But talking about the inevitable destruction of Nashville’s historic Black neighborhoods is like talking about having cancer. We know there is a problem, but no one wants to discuss it.

If it’s not happening in your own backyard, it’s hard to see the immediacy of what’s transpiring. If we don’t see it, we don’t need it or think about it. We can drive down Clifton Street today to see the future of Nashville’s Black neighborhoods. 

The irony here is that the Merry Street neighborhood became like a shrine for me. It’s where I got my body clean and strong when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, before chemo and surgeries.

Merry Street runs between two historic Black churches — one founded 150 years ago and another with its original foundation still intact from 100 years ago. Now it is a dead-end street. Two streets that once intersected Merry — Pearl Street and 24th Avenue — no longer exist.

Why the neighborhood changed

Merry Street had its own entrepreneurs such as barbers, “shade tree” mechanics, plumbers and bakers. 

At the top of the hill is Resha’s market that anchored the neighborhood for a century. The owner knew all the families in the community and gave them food on credit. It was a place for people to socialize and kids could play in the back of the store.

“Children in the neighborhood were industrious, and these values carried over into adulthood,” Ross said. “Before the neighborhood’s destruction, kids who grew up here became chemists, bankers, doctors and lawyers. There was a self-sufficiency and an extensive support system in the community.”

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But key historical events in the 1970s accelerated changes in the Merry Street neighborhood that inflicted untold damages, a catastrophe for generations. Developers and city leaders made false promises and a ton of money while having a profound negative impact on the security, health, wealth, and culture of this neighborhood.

First, it was battered by the building of an interstate highway through the commercial heart of this community, Jefferson Street, affecting employment.

Second, the “busing” of neighborhood school children disrupted the delicate balance and cohesion of keeping children together.

Then, while the community struggled with mounting unemployment and poverty, came the drugs. The neighborhood started to fall apart.

I understand that change is inevitable. But rather than handwave away the reality that these neighborhoods are in the midst of mass erasure, let’s acknowledge what has been lost. Part of Nashville’s history is ending now at the end of Merry Street.

Kelly Motley lives in Nashville and is the author of "The Fight for My Life: Boxing Through Chemo."